The HTC Sensation is one of the hottest high end Android phones of 2011. Given how quickly Android smartphones evolve, that could be a risky statement, but the Sensation 4G’s qHD 4.3” display, 1.2 GHz dual core processor, 4G HSPA and elegant unibody design are likely to keep it at the top of the heap this year. Currently, its strongest competitor on T-Mobile US is the LG G2x and the Samsung Galaxy SII on other carriers (it doesn’t look like T-Mobile will be offering the Galaxy SII).
We’ve been looking forward to the Sensation 4G for quite some time; even since it leaked under its code name, the HTC Pyramid. The combination of HTC’s elegant design, HTC Sense software (now updated to 3.0) and a higher resolution big screen with dual core goodness had us all hot and bothered. Now that it’s landed, we’re as impressed with the phone as we’d hoped, and it does indeed give the G2x a run for the money. The Sensation 4G has 14.4Mbps HSPA 4G, WiFi 802.11b/g/n, Bluetooth 3.0, GPS, a front VGA video chat camera, 8 megapixel rear camera with quick focus and a microSD card slot.
The Sensation 4G runs Android OS 2.3.3 Gingerbread, putting it one major revision ahead of the G2x running 2.2 Froyo (the G2x will eventually get Gingerbread). Gingerbread has been out since December 2010 when it launched on the Google Nexus S, but oddly we haven’t seen many phones running Gingerbread out of the box. Gingerbread has an improved on-screen keyboard, improved copy and paste, an integrated task killer, a download manager, UI tweaks and support for SIP Internet calling. Unfortunately, the Sensation 4G doesn’t support video chat inside Google Talk because that requires version 2.3.4. Hopefully the Sensation will get that minor revision; video chat in Talk is the best we’ve seen among video chat apps on Android in terms of video quality and ease of use.
Design and Ergonomics
Build quality and design are very good, as we’ve come to expect from HTC. The unibody design here is particularly interesting; with the back cover actually wrapping around the sides of the phone. Remove the cover and you’ve got a lot of naked electronics showing, which is fascinating for you Pop Sci types but scary for klutzes. There are several metal contact points on the back cover, and these connect antenna plates on the cover to the phone. When the cover is removed, the phone automatically turns off the wireless radio. The attractive looking 3 panel rear cover is made of both metal and plastic: the top and bottom are plastic so they don’t reduce antenna reception (take that, Apple).
Though the phone is large, it’s no bigger than the 4” G2x, and it feels particularly comfortable in hand thanks to curves and a grippy finish. The buttons are just right: not wobbly like the original HTC HD7 nor too difficult to press. The power button has a pleasant tactile click and the large volume buttons feel solid. The volume buttons are raised just a bit and it is easy to accidentally press them when handling the phone by its sides though. The micro USB port is actually an MHL connector, which means it acts both as a USB sync/charge port and an HDMI port with an MHL adapter that’s sadly not included in the box. MHL adapters generally have a micro USB charging port so you can plug the charger in when playing back video over HDMI. The Sensation has a tricolor LED that indicates charging, new mail etc..
Deals and Shopping:
The design is attractive and the phone has a bit more rounding at the corners compared to other recent HTC smartphones. Some might say that many of HTC’s phones follow the same mold these days, but if it works well and is ergonomic, we won’t complain. If you want extremely novel designs, try a Motorola (BackFlip and square phones galore). We particularly like the Sensation 4G’s curved Gorilla Glass: there’s a subtle concave curve at the edges of the display so the metal frame contacts the tablet, sidewalk or other dangerous surface should the phone tumble face down. It’s the opposite of the LG G2x’s convex curve that looks cool but means the glass makes contact with other objects rather than the frame.
The 4.3” capacitive Super LCD display is sharp and bright (bright enough to be viewable outdoors), and there’s no pixelation or screen door effect. 960 x 540 pixels rather than the usual 800 x 480 makes all the difference to keep everything looking sharp and avoid those black bars around 16:9 movies. Here’s our usual “but”: this isn’t a Samsung Super AMOLED display and you won’t get those almost unnaturally vivid colors or luscious blacks. If you’re hooked on Samsung Android displays after a love affair with a Vibrant, Galaxy S 4G or other high end Samsung handset, you might not be willing to go back to standard LCDs. How does the HTC compare to the T-Mobile G2x display? Quite well, though the G2x has more contrast and wider viewing angles (blacks fade to dark gray on the Sensation when viewed at a 160 degree angle). It’s not an easy choice between the higher quality IPS display on the G2x vs. the Sensation’s larger and higher resolution panel. We hope that HTC some day makes the leap from Super LCD to higher quality panels. Still, I’d pick the solid 4.3” qHD display over the LG’s 4” 800 x 480 display for size and pixel count. Give me more words per ebook screen, more web page without zooming and no black bars in movies, please.
Here's our 18 minute HTC Sensation 4G video review. We compare it with several competing phones, explore the new HTC Sense 3.0 software, test Adobe Flash playback and more.
Calling and Data
The Sensation has better than average voice quality, particularly for outgoing calls thanks to HTC’s multi-mic noise canceling design. Incoming audio is likewise clear with decent volume, though we wouldn’t mind a little more fullness (particularly bass). Reception is average and runs nearly identical to our Nexus S and LG G2x as measured in db (bars aren’t very meaningful). We had no trouble with grip of death and didn’t note signal loss when holding the phone normally or resting it flat on a palm.
Data speeds on T-Mobile’s HSPA 4G network are good, and we got slightly better numbers on the HTC vs. the LG. We’re in a 4G market, in fact we have T-Mobile’s recently rolled out 42Mbps HSPA+, though the phone is 14.4 so it won’t be as fast for data transfers as T-Mobile’s new Rocket 3.0 USB stick. That said, with a good signal we got as high as 9 Mbps down and 3.6 Mbps up according to the Speedtest.net app. With a middling -95db signal the phone averaged 3.5-4.5 megs down and 1.5-3 megs up. The Sensation 4G won’t keep you waiting, to say the least. It has the usual WiFi mobile hotspot feature so you can use the phone as a high speed wireless modem for your WiFi tablet, laptop or other device. Data speeds as a hotspot weren’t that impressive though, and we averaged 1.5 megs down and 1 meg up using a MacBook Pro and Lenovo ThinkPad X1.
The Sensation’s speaker was the only letdown in our calling and multimedia experience. The speaker isn’t very loud nor does it have an ounce of bass. That means calls, music and video voice tracks sound thin and a bit harsh. Our Nexus S is much louder and we had a bit of trouble hearing spoken navigation in a loud car. If you’ve got a quiet sedan with windows closed, you will however be able to hear speakerphone conversations and navigation directions.
The Sensation 4G supports WiFi calling, and that means you'll be able to make crisp, clear calls over WiFi. There's no handoff to the cellular network though, so you'll need to stay in range of the hotspot or the phone will drop the call.
Horsepower and Performance
On paper, the 1.2 GHz dual Scorpion core Qualcomm Snapdragon is the fastest CPU shipping in a smartphone (Sprint’s HTC EVO 3D will use the same CPU). Experientially it feels very responsive, even with a gaggle of apps running in the background, and the phone absolutely eats 3D games and 1080p locally stored video played on the phone or to an HD TV using an MHL adapter. YouTube full screen playback using Adobe Flash 10.3 was smooth at 720p, bandwidth permitting, and 480p was solid. The phone uses the Adreno 220 graphics chip, which should be a significant step up from the already peppy Adreno 205 used with second generation single core Snapdragon CPUs.
(Updated with second review unit) The Quadrant benchmark has become a popular standard, and we’re not sure if Quadrant fully understands this new CPU since it couldn’t report the minimum and maximum frequencies of the chip. The HTC Sensation 4G scored 2269 on Quadrant, which is very respectable, though not quite as good as the Motorola Atrix 4G that sports the same resolution but with a 1GHz Tegra 2 CPU that scored 2481. In Linpack the Sensation 4G scored a very impressive 45.
In Browsermark , the Sensation 4G scored 49,440, while the G2x scored 47,775, tge Samsung Galaxy S II on AT&T scored an amazing 61,601, the iPhone 4 scored 35,901 and the Nexus S scored 37,098 (higher numbers are better).
The Sensation 4G scored 2540/1653 (productivity/gaming) in the Smartbench 2011 benchmark, while the G2x scored 2095/2443 and the Nexus S scored 935/2385 (higher numbers are better). In all benchmark tests, the Samsung Galaxy SII scores the highest and seems to be the handset to beat in terms of raw speed and synthetic tests.
We’re surprised a flagship phone like the Sensation ships with only 1 gig of available internal storage. The phone actually has 4 gigs total, but ¾ is reserved for HTC’s protected, self-restoring ROM. HTC recently announced that they’ll no longer be locking bootloader in this way for future phones, but the Sensation’s is indeed locked. If you don’t understand what I’m talking about, then this doesn’t matter one bit to you; it’s only those who like to hack their phone and root it or install custom ROMs who care.
The Sensation ships with an 8 gig microSD card and the slot is located under the back cover (no need to pull the battery). It has 768 megs of RAM, which is generous by Android phone standards. Should you need more storage, you can use cards up to 32 gigs in capacity.
This is an HTC Android smartphone, and that means you get HTC Sense software. This is the first phone to run Sense 3.0 with a more 3D-looking widget carousel and a new unlock screen that lets you drag an app to the unlock ring to launch it without unlocking the phone. Watch our video to see Sense in action. Some reviewers complain that Sense hasn’t changed much over the past few years, but we still find it useful, attractive and unobtrusive. By the same standards, the iPhone’s user interface hasn’t changed since the first model came out 4 years ago. Beyond widgets for weather, time, social networking, HTC’s FM radio and HTC Music you get social networking integration with contacts, the excellent Friendstream app for Twitter and Facebook, a quick link to all sorts of personalization, HTC Watch for TV show and movie rentals and purchase, and HTC Hub with the HTC Sense service that offers downloads, phone finder, remote phone wipe and easy contacts editing. Unlike most manufacturer customizations of Android, we actually enjoy HTC Sense.
Other apps include T-Mobile TV (streaming TV via MobiTV), TeleNav, HTC Music, Polaris Office (read, write and edit MS Office docs), HTC Transfer, Visual Voicemail, WiFi Hotspot (turn your phone into a WiFi hotspot) and a demo of the game NOVA.
HTC’s cameras certainly have improved in the past 2 years, and while they won’t dethrone high end Nokia N Series imaging phones or Sony Ericsson’s top offerings for still shots, they take very good photos. This is one of the few camera phones that can shoot 1080p video—a good use for the dual core CPU’s processing power.
Images have plenty of detail and colors are good, but the camera is slow to adjust to lighting changes. If you move from a sunny area to one with a part shade area for example, it takes about 2 to 4 seconds for the camera to increase exposure so the shady area isn’t black. And if you move from a shady or partly shady scene to sunlight, likewise the camera at first whites out the scene until it stops down and reduces the exposure. Focus times in decent lighting are excellent thanks to HTC’s new quick capture feature, and even indoor low light shots are quicker than average by cell phone standards. The phone has a dual LED flash that’s capable of lighting a small group of people and the camera doesn’t overexpose terribly when the flash is used.
1080p video capture is a bit oversharpened with a distracting amount of detail in leaves and extra-distinct edges on objects. We’re overstating the case a bit, but it’s not as natural looking as a Flip Video or the Nokia N8. Camera shake is easily transmitted and there’s no software option to reduce shake (great for that Blair Witch handheld camera look). That said, there aren’t many phones that can shoot 1080p video with stereo audio so we won’t complain too much. That stereo audio isn’t terribly loud if you’re the one narrating the scene from behind the camera since the mics are facing away from you and at your subject.
The front VGA video chat camera works decently (hey, it is VGA after all), and T-Mobile ships the phone with their usual pick: Qik Video Chat. The front camera also works as your mirror using HTC’s clever Mirror application.
Good news: this dual core, large screen 4G phone actually has decent battery life. HTC and Qualcomm’s power management algorithms are spot on, and we had no trouble making it through the day with average use. We visited 30 web pages, had push email on for two accounts, played 20 minutes of YouTube video, watched a few locally stored movie trailers, navigated a short trip using Google Maps and talked on the phone for 30 minutes and the phone still had 35% at the end of the day. The Sensation has a 1540 mAh Lithium Ion battery.
The HTC Sensation is no doubt one of the top Android smartphones for 2011. With a very high resolution 4.3” touch screen, dual core CPU, 4G HSPA and 1080p video recording, it’s hard not to be tempted. Throw in HTC’s Sense software and services and an elegant and classy industrial design and we’re sold. The only thing that bothers us are the Sensation’s benchmark numbers, which should be higher given the phone’s 1.2 GHz dual core Snapdragon CPU and Adreno 220 GPU. That said, the phone handles Adobe Flash, 3D gaming and 1080p video playback with aplomb: in the real world it’s a fast smartphone. Even more impressive is the phone’s solid battery life. It’s close race with the T-Mobile LG G2x, but I’m leaning toward the Sensation 4G for its larger and higher resolution display in a similar sized package and HTC Sense software. But we’ll give the LG points for its faster browser rendering, sharp IPS display and selection of Tegra 2 games.
Price: $199 after rebate with a 2 year contract, $549 retail
Display:4.3" capacitive multi-touch Super LCD. Resolution:
960 x 540 qHD. Has an accelerometer, proximity sensor and ambient light sensor.
Ion rechargeable. Battery is user replaceable.
Performance:1.2 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon MSM8260 CPU with Adreno 220 graphics (45 nm). 768 megs RAM. 4 gigs flash ROM with 1 gig
x 2.78 x 0.53 inches. Weight: 4.67 ounces.
Phone:GSM quad band world phone 850/900/1800/1900MHz. 3G/4G HSPA on T-Mobile's US bands and 2100MHz for Europe.
Camera:Front VGA video chat camera with Qik Video Chat software. Rear main 8 megapixel autofocus camera with dual LED flash. Can shoot 1080p video.
in speaker, noise canceling mics and 3.5mm standard stereo headphone
WiFi 802.11b/g/n and Bluetooth 3.0.
Software:Android OS Gingerbread 2.3.3 with HTC Sense 3.0 software. Additional software: Adobe Flash, HTC Watch, HTC Weather, HTC Music, HTC Friendstream, TeleNav, T-Mobile TV, Polaris Office, Slacker Radio, Adobe Reader and standard suite of Google Android applications.